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February 12, 2019

Angela Readman's Playlist for Her Novel "Something Like Breathing"

Something Like Breathing

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Angela Readman's novel Something Like Breathing is a stunning debut, a coming-of-age fairy tale I could not put down.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Readman’s debut novel paints a vivid picture of coming-of-age on that gloomy island in the 1950s, using distinct narrative voices to drive the well-paced revelations. The complicated, almost sisterly friendship between Lorrie and Sylvie will remind readers of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (2012), and the hint of magic will appeal to fans of Alice Hoffman’s darker work."

In her own words, here is Angela Readman's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Something Like Breathing:

I wrote Something Like Breathing at a small desk with a lamp and a speaker on it. I’d already written a short story collection and had been getting poems published for years, but it was a complete departure for me. This was a novel. It’s a completely different experience.

It involves longer writing sessions and more hours at my desk. There’s no substitute for it. It takes stamina. I got through it by putting on music, as loud as I dared, for short bursts. Sometimes, I’d get up, jump up and down to dust off the cobwebs after an hour or so, then get back to work. I needed that to keep writing. I used music like a shot of caffeine.

Jesus & Mary Chain - April Skies

The story is set on an island in Scotland where winters are long. When I was working on the novel I’d often get up early and write in fingerless gloves. It was still dark outside and freezing. I looked forward to lighter spring and the mornings, but they were a long time coming. It snowed as late as April, so I put on April Skies and kept writing. I love the summery sound. Though the Mary Chain are described as a goth band, they cite surf music and Elvis as an influence. It’s a breezy song that captures the island. Everyone’s waiting for clear skies.

Metallica - Whiskey in the Jar

Whiskey is everywhere in the book. One family runs a distillery, but there’s also a darker side of people making moonshine on the fringes of society. Metallica aren’t a band I was into growing up, but I married a rock man and he introduced me in small stages. A song here, a song there, like a baby steps introduction to evil. Their version of Whiskey in the Jar blows me away. It’s one of my motivation songs. I listen to it whenever I have to do something outside my comfort zone and need a shot of confidence. I still have it on my i-pod. I think I always will.

Neko Case - That Teenage Feeling

I could have picked almost anything by Neko. I didn’t discover them until a few years ago when a friend gave me a ticket to see them at The Sage. After the gig, I binged on the back catalogue. "That Teenage Feeling" fits the novel and when I worked on it. The central characters are two girls, Sylvie and Lorrie. They grow up together and become teenagers in a place where there isn’t much to do. That feeling of finding music I loved and immersing myself was like being a teenager again. Good music can make you feel young.

Nirvana - Lithium

Friendship is a force in the story. It’s always changing, it’s an influence, a source of inspiration and defines how people see themselves (a bit like social media now, it can be good or bad.) Oddly, I struggled to think of a song about friendship I love. I’m so happy because today I found my friends is a deceptively simple line. Its innocence isn’t dissimilar to the kids I wrote about. Sylvie is dying to be friends with the glamorous girl next door. Thinking about it makes her giddy. It’s a salvation from geekdom.

Elvis - Are you Lonesome Tonight? (laughing version)

It’s the 1950’s in the book, so the music is set in the era. Without MTV, Sylvie and Lorrie listen to the radio. "Love Me Tender" gets stuck in their heads, though lonesome captures their mood. I love the version where Elvis gets the words wrong. I was in a taxi at night once and the driver, this big surly guy, turned to me and said, ‘Do you mind if I turn this up? It’s Elvis laughing, it cracks me up.’ So he turned the song up and we sat listening to it: Elvis laughing, the taxi driver laughing, and me, the rainy streets slipping by.

500 Miles - The Proclaimers & Mr Blue Sky - Electric Light Orchestra

This is a strange combination of songs to be in the same sentence, I know, but both deserve a mention. "500 Miles" could apply to my characters walking everywhere in all weathers. Mr Blue Sky could reference waiting for sunshine in a windy place. But the real reason I’m including them together is a moment I had working on the novel.

It was the day after Christmas and I popped out for milk. It was dead in the supermarket, only a handful of shoppers. Th place looked clean and sparse, all the clutter of the season stripped away overnight. For the first time in months, there was no Christmas songs. I was like breathing fresh air. They played "Mr Blue Sky" & "500 Miles," and wherever I went I heard other lone shoppers singing along somehow. Not always singing really, but whistling, stamping, or jangling their carts to the rhythm.

There’s a bit in "500 Miles" that cheers ‘tra la la la’, and everyone joined in separately. It was one of those moments that are so unexpected it’s suddenly amazing to be alive. These strangers were connected by loving the same music. I always want something of that in my work, a sense of people being so odd sometimes it’s joyous. I hope I’ve included moments like that in Something Like Breathing. They’re not something we can plan. They’re not important, they’re unexpected, but they’re everything.

The Killers- Mr. Brightside

This is one of those tracks I can’t get over. It’s as fresh as the first day I heard it. It’s another one I put on to feel awake. It was only a kiss, it was only a kiss is a thought a lot of my characters have. I just can’t look it’s killing me, is too. Honestly, I can’t even write about it without feeling the need to stop and listen to it again.

Leonard Cohen - Everybody Knows

Cohen’s one of my favorite lyricists. It doesn’t get much better than him or Nick Cave. I use faster music between edits, but this track relates to my characters feeling lonely, but never really being alone. In a quiet community, gossip is rife. People have opinions on everything, particularly girls and what they should wear, do, or say. Whatever they do, everybody knows.

Pixies - Where is My Mind

I’ve included this because the Pixies are amazing- is that a good reason? I think so. There’s a sense of people falling apart at times in Something Like Breathing, young and old alike, but I’d have listened to this band while I was writing it regardless. Oddly, I find this song relaxing, the sound of it’s so beautiful.

Smashing Pumpkins - Today

I shiver when I hear Smashing Pumpkins. I picture frost, crushed glass and a sea breeze all at once. It’s a sound full of possibilities. The words for "Today" are the same, full of hurt and hope, and how to hope is an ache sometimes. That’s what the future feels like for the girls in my story. It makes them shiver and tingle all at once.

It’s a bit like how it feels to publish a novel. I’ve never done it before, so it’s scary, yet exhilarating. Billy Corgan sings about a day being the greatest day he’s ever known, and in the next breath sings about tearing his heart out. That pretty much captures what it’s like to write.

Angela Readman and Something Like Breathing links:

excerpt from the book

Booklist review
Financial Times review
Irish Times review
Kirkus review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review

Times Literary Supplement interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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